The body runs on sugar. Everything we eat eventually breaks down into glucose, which the hormone insulin carries into our cells. When something goes wrong at any point in this process, the cells don’t have enough fuel to run on, and the result is serious illness. In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas stops producing insulin, so the disease is controlled with insulin injections. In type 2 diabetes, which is far more common, the cells lose their ability to respond to insulin. This is known as insulin resistance. Type 2 diabetes can sometimes be controlled through exercise and diet. A number of foods may have a potentially beneficial effect on the glucose-insulin-fuel process. Any food that improves insulin sensitivity might be useful. Diabetes requires collaboration between physician and patient. Diabetics must pair consistent blood sugar monitoring at home with regular measurement of hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c)—an average of blood sugar control over several weeks—at the doctor’s office to make sure their blood sugar control is adequate. A surprising number of natural remedies can help people with type 2 diabetes by preventing a rapid rise in blood sugar after eating.
I have type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, and I take medicine for both. I have heard that bitter melon can be used to treat type 2 diabetes. What do you know about this plant?
Bitter melon (Momordica charantia) is widely used as both food and medicine in India and China. Studies show that it can lower blood sugar in animals and in human diabetics.1 Use of any herb or dietary supplement requires careful monitoring and must be coordinated by your physician.
I have high cholesterol and diabetes (controlled through diet). I’ve been using cinnamon to help keep my blood sugar and cholesterol down. I’d like to continue, but I read in your column that it might be dangerous. Is there a specific brand or type that does not have the damaging ingredient in it? I hate to buy yet another expensive supplement when cinnamon is so readily available in the spice aisle of the grocery store.
Research shows that cinnamon may help control blood sugar, but German regulatory authorities warn that the kitchen spice sometimes contains high levels of coumarin. This compound can damage the liver or kidneys, if taken at fairly high levels daily. It may also have blood-thinning activity and interact with the anticoagulant warfarin (Coumadin). Cinnulin PF is a water-soluble extract of cinnamon that does not contain coumarin. Capsules, available in health food stores, appear to be safe and may help control blood sugar levels.
When my daughter learned that I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, she did some research and found out that cinnamon capsules would be helpful. I have used cinnamon for about three years. My family doctor does blood tests and has confirmed that cinnamon keeps my blood sugar under control.
Research supports your experience. Cinnamon can keep levels of blood glucose from spiking after a meal. We don’t recommend using cinnamon from the spice rack, though, since some brands may contain coumarin, an ingredient that can be toxic when ingested in large amounts. Cinnamon capsules are safer.
I tried making a cinnamon extract with hot water to help with blood sugar. I ended up with a gooey glob. Please provide exact proportions of spice to water so I don’t have to deal with the mess.
Research shows that one-quarter to one-half teaspoon of ground cinnamon before a meal can reduce the rise in blood sugar after eating. We suggest putting this amount of cinnamon in a paper coffee filter and pouring a cup of hot water over it. One reader has a slightly different technique: “I put about two teaspoons cinnamon in my coffee filter and then put coffee grounds on top so I get the benefits of cinnamon and it cuts any bitterness from the coffee. I turned all my family and friends on to this, and my mother-in-law was able to go off her diabetes medicine that she’d been on for years!” Note: Two teaspoons of cinnamon is enough for a whole pot of coffee. Anyone who uses cinnamon to lower blood sugar should be under medical supervision to have both HbA1c and liver enzymes monitored.
THE PEOPLE’S PHARMACY
Favorite Food #8: Cinnamon
Cinnamon comes from the bark of two South Asian trees: Cinnamomum verum and Cinnamomum cassia (commonly called cassia cinnamon). The cinnamon found on the spice shelf at the grocery store usually comes from C. cassia. Active compounds in cinnamon are water-soluble polyphenols, which contribute to the color, taste, flavor, and medicinal actions of many plants. Polyphenols dramatically boost the action of insulin.1 In a placebo-controlled trial lasting 40 days, researchers in Pakistan gave participants cinnamon capsules in doses of one, three, or six grams. The researchers reported that cinnamon reduced fasting blood sugar—along with triglycerides, LDL cholesterol, and total cholesterol—in people with type 2 diabetes.2 One study clarified that cassia cinnamon affects blood sugar, while Ceylon cinnamon, from C. verum, does not.3
My father and uncle both have diabetes. I want to reduce my chance of developing this disease, and I’ve heard that drinking coffee can help. Is there any evidence for this claim?
Several epidemiological studies have demonstrated an association between regular coffee consumption and a reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes.2 Do not count on coffee alone to protect you, however. Regular exercise and weight control are far more likely to be helpful in preventing type 2 diabetes.
What is fenugreek? I have been diagnosed as borderline diabetic. My neighbor said this over-the-counter product helps keep blood sugar in check. My doctor said with proper diet and exercise I can beat the diabetes. Do you have any additional information?
Fenugreek is an herb used in Indian cooking. Research shows that it can help lower blood sugar. Other natural substances used to control blood sugar include cinnamon, bitter melon, oolong tea, and vinegar.
Joe Graedon & Terry Graedon, The People’s Pharmacy: Quick & Handy Home Remedies, published by National Geographic